In March 2020, I started the first incarnation of Night Electricity on Wordpress. You can still find it, though there’s not much there. I posted my Gundam article here already, and there’s a fairly bad one about Doom and Animal Crossing that’s based on a cocktail metaphor. But I didn’t start with either of those. Instead, it was about Kingdom Hearts, a game that’s now celebrating its 20th anniversary. That fact doesn’t make me feel old, exactly, but reading the article sure did. It’s a strange time capsule of the early pandemic, as the experience morphed from something I had to explain to friends and family back home to something universal. A time before my employer worked out how to do remote work, of mask shortages and what felt like endless time. Honestly, reading this back makes me cringe a little- not just for the earnest but vain hope of the pandemic winding down only a few months in, but well, there’s a reason I never republished it before now. It’s kind of embarrassing. The writing is sloppy and overwrought. It kind of gets away from itself and then has to clumsily tie stuff together.
Kind of perfect for Kingdom Hearts, then. I never did give the games after 2 a proper shot- I tried Birth by Sleep but I couldn’t really connect to its characters. I’m more forgiving of 2’s convoluted plot because I got to know Sora, Donald, Goofy and Riku over a simpler adventure. Birth by Sleep can’t have that luxury, saddled as it is with answering lingering questions and posing new ones. Maybe I’ll get back to it someday, but for now I’m content that through all the Twitter irony poisoning, I can still look back fondly on those hours spent playing with action figures in charmingly low-fi recreations of Disney movies.
In 2022 I want to rid myself of the part of me that cringes. My first step in that journey was submitting a short story to a zine that’s the most personal thing I’ve written. Yesterday, I found out it had been accepted, and though it’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, the comment I received from the editor managed to pierce through the veil of gloom and neuroses, an acknowledgment that I’m on the right track. Republishing this is another small step. I’m not going to promise that that means more Internet Content in 2022, but at least there will be less I leave rotting on Google Docs.
Happy birthday, Kingdom Hearts. Your goofy sincerity was there at the start of this, and maybe there was more to learn from that than I first figured.
Kingdom Hearts and Isolation
Almost three months ago, I left work for the Spring Festival national holiday. It’s easily the most important holiday in mainland China, but more pressing for me at the time was that it’s also the longest. I’d been feeling burnt out, working weeks without proper days off. So, you can imagine how I felt when towards the end of that break the news hit- we wouldn’t be going back to work until mid-February! Yes, the virus was a bit scary, but this was finally the break I needed. It made sense too- why would anyone come to learn English in a time like this? It is something truly optional for most of our students. And I was still able to meet up with friends, enjoy the city- it was just quieter than usual.
Then it was postponed until March 1st. Now you had to wear masks outside. Restaurants and businesses that had closed for the festival stayed shut, and even those that had stayed open were heavily restricted. The novelty had started to wear thin. I was struggling to differentiate the days. The medicine I needed to take was difficult to find. My rabbit couldn’t get his normal food, so he had to eat way more vegetables (the horror!).
Then it was postponed until mid-March. It felt like the walls were closing in. People started to leave. Some, permanently- a person I’d considered a close friend fled without so much as a goodbye. Yes, deliveries were available again (my rabbit is fine, thanks for asking), some more things were open (if restricted), but the weight of all that time alone bore down upon me. I felt like I was going to crack.
I’m still not back at work. April 1st is the current estimate, but who knows. I don’t think I’ve lost my mind yet. I can credit a few things to that. I still know great people over here and abroad that have kept in touch, digitally or otherwise. Having to take care of an animal has also meant having to take care of myself. I have not written King Lear, but the writing I have done has helped. Oh, and I’ve watched a lot of movies, some that have been on my backlog for ages.
Still. An awful lot of time. So, when I saw a copy of the Kingdom Hearts HD collection at my friend’s apartment, I thought, why not? It was a series I’d had some curiosity in for a while. We played through the prologue on Destiny Island over a couple of beers. It seemed fine, a bit of a slow introduction, clunky combat, but charming enough. I’d played far more janky games than this, so fine. I took it home.
Now I’m staring at a 45-ish hour playtime of Kingdom Hearts 2, which I’ve been playing on Critical mode, working my way through the super-secret bosses to wring just about everything I can from it. So, what happened? Was I just so bored that I’d play anything with a long playtime? Had the madness of waiting for Bayonetta 3 meant that I’d accept anything close to a character action game? Did quarantine break my brain so hard that I can now only process plots told by Disney and Final Fantasy hand-puppets?
I think it’s more than that. It would be no surprise to a fan of these games that I think there’s something special to them. But most people I know who are into Kingdom Hearts played it when they were younger, and were fans of RPGs to begin with. This is decidedly “not me”. I never had a PS2 as a child, and my preference in games tends more to shorter, action-focused works or charming (if slightly busted) auteur stuff. I am also, admittedly, not the biggest fan of Disney, nor have I beaten or even played many Final Fantasy games. Why would a sprawling RPG series that combines both of those ever appeal to me? As you can probably tell from how many words there are before this point, I’m not entirely sure. These games are about so much (probably too much, and I’ve yet to venture beyond the first three entries in the canon) that it’s hard to pin down the essence of it all. But I do have a guess.
For me, these games are not about the combat (though goddamn I love the combat in 2), not about the Disney worlds (though often gorgeously realised), not even about the absurd trenchcoat-wearing baddies (though they are great fun- Larxene is definitely the best). Not even about Sora specifically- for me, the heart of it is the connections he has. The connections he has to his childhood friends. The connections he has to the new ones he makes along his journey. The connection he has to the other side of himself. The connection he has to that time on Destiny Island, where things were so simple and understandable that they were… boring. And, most crucially, how he would never want rid of those connections, despite being unmoored in an at times terrifying kaleidoscope of fragmented worlds that he does not belong to.
And yet. They are tested. At times, they bring conflict. Some are even completely severed. Sometimes he is alone. More importantly, sometimes he feels alone, a distinction I’ve sure we’ve all felt at one point or another. I am, admittedly, probably pouring too much significance on all of this. I’m sure at least one person rolled their eyes reading that. But as someone similarly unmoored, who has been pining for some ideal sense of home long since obliterated, who over these bleak few months has been both alone and felt alone, whose own connections have been pulled and twisted and yes, sometimes broken- it felt significant to me. Embarking on a quest that through all the anime cheese and convoluted plotting was so achingly sincere- it helped me. In some small way. Something to hold onto. Something that kept me thinking of those connections, even if they’re hard to maintain right now.
I probably would have never started playing Kingdom Hearts if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 outbreak. I can’t say I’m glad that’s the reason. Seeing this epidemic go to a pandemic has been both surreal and heart-breaking. Here in China, it feels as if we’ve seen the worst of it, that things may soon return to normal. I don’t want to tempt fate on that. Seeing people all around the world now having to adapt to this situation- it’s scary. Some of my friends and family are in countries that are far less prepared to deal with this. I’m not a religious person, but I pray that they stay safe. I hope that you will, too. Over the coming weeks, months- however long this lasts- I hope you find your thing to hold on to, in the times when no one can reach you. Something to escape into? Sure. But for myself, I’ve needed something that speaks to me beyond that, at least right now. And as silly as it sounds, it’s the borderline fanfiction of Kingdom Hearts.